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The Cassandra Factor

Becky O’Malley
Tuesday August 12, 2003

On Sunday afternoon I heard a KQED broadcast of a taped lecture/discussion with author Salmon Rushdie. I wasn’t listening very carefully, and at first I thought Rushdie was commenting on the current state of affairs in occupied Iraq. Eventually I realized that the tape had actually been made sometime in February, before the U.S. invasion started. He was expressing his apprehension about what might take place after the war—destroyed infrastructure, civil chaos, rise of the kind of religious fundamentalism which has caused him a lot of grief in his own life—in short, everything that has indeed happened.  

The interviewer, KQED’s house liberal Michael Krasny, was expressing mild skepticism about Rushdie’s extreme apprehension—it couldn’t possibly be that bad, he seemed to be saying. It was a clear example of the Cassandra Factor at work. 

It never seems to pay to be prematurely right, as poor Cassandra found out many centuries ago. Her name has gone into popular culture as the original bad vibes babe, someone who can’t resist the negative remarks which spoil the party. In fact, in the old Greek story she had the peculiarly unpleasant gift of being able to foretell the future accurately, but in such a way that no one would believe her. 

George Bush takes full advantage of the Cassandra Factor. He and the crew of half-witted failed academics who are running his show make one appalling decision after another, with predictable consequences, but the American media are afraid to call attention to the obvious flaws in the proposals at the time they’re made. UC Professor George Akerlof has articulated with chilling precision the probable consequences of Bush’s cuckoo economic policies, and he’s undoubtedly right. His analysis was picked up by Der Spiegel in Europe and then by the Nation and the Daily Planet, but nowhere else in this country. No one wants to look like a naysayer. 

And the Democrats are no better than the media. If Gray Davis had an ounce of political courage, he’d be running against George Bush in the recall election. It’s all true, he could say, the California economy is tanking, our schools are broke, our roads are falling apart, but it’s because of the Republican derelictions at the national level. On the other hand, if Davis had any political courage at all, he wouldn’t be in this fix. The time to speak out about the consequences of the Bush policies was when they were proposed last year, but most Democrats, including Davis, were still too mesmerized by the post Sept. 11 patriotic frenzy to say anything much. 

Between them, Gray Davis and Cruz Bustamante now have the opportunity to let the people of California know what’s wrong, if they are brave enough to do so. If the two could develop a united message they could both run against Bush and his energy industry cronies like Enron—the cause of most of California’s current budget crisis. 

Under this scenario, the best thing that could happen would be for Dubya to come to California to campaign for Schwarzenegger, which is already a rumor in the press. We do have big trouble, Davis and Bustamante could tell the voters, but it’s something that Bush caused, and the remedy is to dump him and his friends. The last thing California needs, they could say with some confidence, is another one of Bush’s buddies in our governor’s chair. But instead they seem to be floundering around, with Davis especially trying to out-Republican the Republicans, and that won’t work. 

The only candidate so far who’s willing take the Cassandra role and tell the truth is another Greek woman, Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington. Because of the bizarre mathematics of the process, she might even have a chance to win. There are enough semi-plausible candidates that the margin for the winner could be pretty small, giving outsiders a better than average chance. And if the Hearst Chronicle is any sample, the press coverage of an election with Schwarzenegger in it will look a lot like People Magazine. If the race degenerates into a celebrity contest, Arianna might just turn out to be the most charming celebrity in the field. To my ear, her accent beats his any day. 

Becky O’Malley is Executive Editor of the Daily Planet.